In many countries, the police use the smartphones of LGBTQ people to persecute them

In many countries, the police use the smartphones of LGBTQ people to persecute them

In many countries

In the summer of 2018 Adham (an invented name), 22, was approached by some men while waiting for a friend in Cairo. "They said they were from the investigative police, then they grabbed my arms, took my ID card and searched my phone for same-sex dating apps," he told Human Rights Watch in 2020. Investigators "poked" Adham to show them the photos saved on his phone as they inspected the device for "evidence". Eventually, they arrested him.

For several days, police officers humiliated and beat Adham. Cases like his fall within the framework of a broader persecution of the LGBTQ community. Egypt is one of sixty-nine countries that still criminalize same-sex sexual activity. Adham was charged with "debauchery" and although the charges were dropped after an appeal, they remained on his criminal record for months. Human Rights Watch reported that during Adham's ordeal, police officers systematically directed their attention to his smartphone in search of "evidence". At one point, Adham said, cops threatened to place fake photos on his phone.

The police treatment of Adham is not an isolated case. Throughout the Middle East and North Africa in particular, daily telephone activity - which includes installed applications, saved photos and the exchange of messages - is regularly used as "evidence" to persecute people belonging to the LGBTQ community. Now new research has revealed the tactics used by police officers to discriminate against LGBTQ people and collect data from their devices.

The representation of LGBTQ + characters on American TV has never been so high The report of the American association Glaad shows encouraging signs, especially in the presence of lesbian women on the screen Read the article In the last two years, the researcher Afsaneh Rigot, supported from the NGO Article 19, the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University and the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard Law School, he studied how digital evidence "legitimized" the police to take action against people accused of homosexuality in Egypt, Lebanon and Tunisia. All three countries use a fragmented legislative framework - which often includes vague definitions of morality or debauchery - to persecute LGBTQ people. Rigot's research, documented in the article Digital Crime Scenes, includes twenty-one interviews with lawyers representing defendants in lawsuits against LGBTQ people, and the review of court documents of twenty-nine cases, providing an unprecedented insight into the prosecution's approach in these cases. .

Police are using WhatsApp and text messages, photo galleries, selfies of naked and naked bodies, and other data extracted from confiscated phones to discriminate against LGBTQ people, the report said. Trans women and gay men are among the most frequent targets, although it is difficult to establish the exact number of cases due to the lack of transparency on the part of courts and justice systems. "Before using this digital evidence it was really difficult to prove [a person's sexuality]," explains Rigot. Prosecutors tackle cases using whatever information they can find on a defendant's phone: "Identity is criminalized rather than actions," says Rigot.

This "evidence" is often inconsistent, at best . For example, the report reports a case in which a "I like you" written in a message was used as possible evidence to prove a person's non-heterosexuality. In another case, a contact saved as a "sweetie" led to a police interrogation. "They enter Facebook Messenger [from confiscated phones, ed.] To take conversations and photos - explains Ghassen Ghribi, a Tunisian lawyer who contributed to the study -. The police always try to have some photos to make the evidence more incriminating".

All the lawyers interviewed by Rigot reported that the police take data from WhatsApp, and twenty-two of the twenty-nine cases examined by the report included photos - some explicit - obtained from the chat galleries. "It takes so little to prosecute that even the presence of specific applications on your phone is incriminating," said Rasha Younes, a researcher with Human Rights Watch's program for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Devices sieved WiredLeaks, how to send us an anonymous report Read the article When they need to bypass a smartphone's encryption systems, law enforcement agencies often turn to sophisticated hacking tools such as technology from the Israeli company Cellebrite. But the police in the three countries cited in the report do not appear to be using similar tools. Law enforcement officers targeting LGBTQ people in these areas are instead relying on low-tech tactics to access data on phones and rely on physical access to devices.

Arrests on the street - such as in Adham's case - forced inspections on phones, whistleblowers and fake profiles created on dating apps by police officers are all strategies that can lead law enforcement to get their hands on a person's phone: "They haven't been particularly smart since from a technological point of view, "a lawyer explained to Rigot (all lawyers interviewed for the study were cited anonymously to protect people who could face retaliation by law enforcement or governments). The report explains that law enforcement often obtains passwords or device pins of their targets during interrogations or interviews. They can then manually browse phones, starting with dating and messaging apps. Police often rely on specific terms or keywords to find what they are looking for, says Rigot.

There are numerous documented incidents in the world in which people belonging to the LGBTQ community have been targeted by law enforcement and from other groups creating fake profiles on dating apps like Grindr. The cases are often similar: officers create an account using photos found online, contact their targets and chat with them to gather "evidence" or possibly arrange meetings where they can then proceed to arrests. Dating apps have been used to frame people in India, Senegal, and Kenya. The reported cases in Egypt date back to 2014.

"I have received many complaints about the use of dating apps by police officers who, for example, create fake profiles with the purpose of deceiving people", tells Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the UN independent expert on violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The UN declaration on human rights includes the right to privacy: to interfere with this privacy, explains Madrigal-Borloz, the authorities need a legal justification. In cases analyzed by Rigot in Egypt, Lebanon and Tunisia, law enforcement agencies do not appear to have obtained warrants to search the devices of their targets.

Madrigal-Borloz says his office has received complaints from worldwide of incidents of requisitioned phones without the consent of the owners. In many of these cases, "data is generally accessed through threat or coercion - he says -. As, for example, in countries where the practice is carried out, the threat of forceful anal inspections."
"Most of the time this gathering of evidence is illegal, since the accused person's consent is not even sought. In many cases, these people are forced to provide access to their devices so that they can be examined, when they are not analyzed directly [by the police, ed.] in the absence of a password, "said Alaa Khemir, a lawyer and human rights activist who works in Tunisia and participated in the study. The report also reports cases in which LGBTQ people have approached the police to report a crime they had been victims of, only to become the target of police officers who suspected they might not be heterosexual after questioning.

It is difficult for lawyers to exclude digital evidence gathered without a warrant from a case, explains Khemir, referring to his experiences. "The right to a fair trial is severely undermined by these breaches of privacy and personal information," she adds.

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Arrow Countries that persecute LGBTQ communities are increasingly changing their legal approaches to cases. The report claims that cybercrime laws are being used in Egypt to prosecute these communities by exploiting the presence of "digital evidence". In these cases, the convictions can lead to higher fines and tougher prison terms. In June 2021, for example, Egyptian courts sentenced TikTok influencers Mawada al-Adham and Haneen Hossam to six and ten years in prison for some posts contrary to the "values ​​of Egyptian society".

For some countries to stop criminalizing people on the basis of their sexual orientation, extensive legal and cultural reforms are needed, but they take time: "We need laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, also online, "says Younes. Pending that moment, adds Rigot, the world's leading technology companies can help reduce the amount of digital evidence used against LGBTQ communities by rethinking their product design processes. "These companies and technologies are created in contexts very far from those in which they end up being used - explains Rigot -. Little or nothing is done to understand how these tools can be used against the most vulnerable or marginalized people".

Digital Crime Scenes identifies a number of measures that social media companies and technology platforms can take to improve the privacy and security of their products. Adding secondary pins or passwords to apps to allow you to lock sensitive information; eliminate automatic saving of photos in galleries; the use of usernames in lieu of telephone numbers, which can be used to more easily identify a person; or alerts to warn you when conversations are screened, such as on Snapchat.

Some companies have taken steps to help protect people who are potentially at risk. Grindr now allows you to change its app icon to help protect people from who might be looking on their phone for "evidence" of their membership in the LGBTQ community, while some messaging apps have introduced messages that disappear after a certain period. All of these changes make a difference, explains Rigot, and not just for vulnerable people. "Basing development on the most marginalized people can lead to better technology for all," concludes the report.

This article originally appeared on Uk.

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